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PolitiFact Florida | Tampa Bay Times
Sorting out the truth in state politics

PolitiFact: Checking two NRA claims about Sen. Bill Nelson and guns

The National Rifle Association wants Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson out of office.

A flier mailed to some Floridians by the NRA's Institute for Legislative Action compares Nelson's record on gun control with that of his Republican opponent in the U.S. Senate race, U.S. Rep. Connie Mack IV.

We decided to take a look at two specific attacks against Nelson.

• "Nelson voted to confirm (President) Barack Obama's anti-gun nominees to the Supreme Court — including Sonia Sotomayor who signed a Supreme Court opinion saying Americans do not have an individual right to own firearms."

• And that "Nelson voted for a ban on millions of commonly owned firearms, which included many popular hunting and target rifles."

We'll take them in order.

Sotomayor case

The first part of the claim is easy: Nelson voted to confirm Sotomayor, Obama's first Supreme Court nominee, on Aug. 6, 2009, in a 68-31 vote.

The second part — that she signed a Supreme Court opinion saying Americans do not have an individual right to own firearms — is a little harder to understand (at least, for those of us not trained in legalese).

The ad is a reference to the 2010 Supreme Court case McDonald vs. Chicago, which dealt with handgun bans in Chicago and the Chicago suburb of Oak Park.

It picked up where a landmark (pre-Sotomayor) Supreme Court decision left off. In 2008, the court ruled in District of Columbia vs. Heller that the Second Amendment includes an individual right of gun ownership, overturning a D.C. ban on handguns.

Heller dealt with federal law and left undetermined whether this interpretation of the Second Amendment applied to state and local government restrictions on guns. By a 5-4 majority, the court argued in McDonald that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual right to own a gun against the regulations of state and local governments.

This wasn't the ruling Sotomayor wanted. She signed a 31-page dissenting opinion written by Justice Stephen Breyer and co-signed by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, both appointed by former President Bill Clinton.

Many news accounts of the ruling homed in on this line from the conclusion: "In sum, the Framers did not write the Second Amendment in order to protect a private right of armed self-defense."

That mirrors the NRA's claim about Sotomayor, said many experts we consulted.

"The characterization of her opinion is accurate," said David Kopel, research director of the libertarian-leaning Independence Institute and an adjunct constitutional law professor at Denver University. "She joined an opinion that said Heller should be overruled."

What's missing from this attack is the context that Nelson voted to confirm Sotomayor before she signed the opinion in McDonald. That context slightly dulls the connection between Nelson and Sotomayor's stance. As such, we rated this claim Mostly True.

Gun ban vote

The gun ban attack relates to a 2004 vote that Nelson took in favor of extending the assault weapons ban of 1994.

The original assault weapons ban of 1994 prohibited the manufacture or possession of semiautomatic assault weapons and banned guns that had two listed military-style features.

The law expired in 2004 after attempts to renew it failed.

We interviewed experts about the assault weapons ban, including Daniel Vice, an attorney at the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, and Kristen Rand, legislative director for the Violence Policy Center — two groups that fight gun violence and are often on the opposite side of the NRA.

We also interviewed Christopher S. Koper, an associate professor at George Mason University.

All three of our experts disagreed with the NRA's claim.

Because Nelson's 2004 vote was simply to extend the ban, it couldn't have banned "millions of commonly owned firearms" as the NRA claimed, Vice said in an email. The 1994 ban "only banned the sale or possession of newly manufactured guns," not guns already owned by people.

Also, the ban specifically exempted hundreds of hunting weapons by name, Vice said.

Koper, the professor who wrote a report about the ban for the Department of Justice, said that the NRA's claim is misleading. The purpose of the ban was to restrict weapons with multiple military-style features that were less appropriate for hunting purposes. Also, gun manufacturers continued to make weapons very similar to the banned weapons by removing some or all of the military-style features, allowing sport shooters to get similar substitutes in many cases.

We rated this claim False.

PolitiFact Florida is partnering with 10 News for the 2012 election. See video fact-checks at PolitiFact.com/Florida.

The statement

Bill Nelson voted to confirm Sonia Sotomayor, "who signed a Supreme Court opinion saying Americans do not have an individual right to own firearms."

NRA, in a campaign mailer

The ruling

PolitiFact ruling: Mostly True
The NRA is correct in saying Nelson voted to confirm Sonia Sotomayor as an associate justice of the Supreme Court. And many experts see the group's assertion that she signed an opinion "saying Americans do not have an individual right to own firearms" as fair. The only piece of context missing is the timing of the two events. We rate this claim Mostly True.

The statement

"Bill Nelson voted for a ban on millions of commonly owned firearms, which included many popular hunting and target rifles."

NRA, in a campaign mailer

The ruling

PolitiFact ruling: False
The ban applied to newly manufactured weapons, and gunmakers quickly found ways to tweak banned guns to create "after ban" guns. Hunters or sportsmen still had plenty of choices — literally hundreds since the ban explicitly listed more than 600 weapons used for hunting that remained legal. We rate this claim False.

PolitiFact: Checking two NRA claims about Sen. Bill Nelson and guns 09/30/12 [Last modified: Sunday, September 30, 2012 7:50pm]
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